April 27, 2008

Stylistic practices have their own dynamic of power that is often at odds with the express aim of these practices

Alexei Says: April 25, 2008 at 8:06 am
Just a couple of questions, Sinthome, and perhaps a few rambles:
In the first instance, I’m not entirely sure that systems theory or math is any less difficult or obscure than any bit of philosophy. Although there have been great popularizers, say, of string theory, or complexity theory, their robust articulations are in no uncertain terms difficult, perhaps even verging on obsurantist.
Indeed, there’s a debate within theoretical physics, which has been going on for a few years now, about whether string theory obscures what physics is — or should be — up to; indeed, whether it’s physics at all. (there’s a popular book on the subject, but I’ve forgotten the title) Same with systems theory, although this debate ended, i think, in the ’80s when the decade old promise of a general systems theory failed to produce anything once again. And then there’s Math’s unease with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems: no one is entirely sure what they actually amount to. There is absolutely no consensus over what they mean or imply. Go ahead and ask a Mathematician — rather than a philosophy type — and see what he or she thinks. I’d wager that he or she simply shrugs, and says something to the effect that ‘it’s an elegant argument, but it doesn’t really affect any contemporary theoretical math.’ Or again, take a look at Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Theorem, which wonders through typology, etc. before making its point (the great anecdote was that when wiles was teaching his proof, no one had any idea what he was up to, or why he was combining things the way he did; no one had a clue what he was up to). In all of these cases, there doesn’t seem to be anything ‘clear.’
So I wonder: are we not mistaking the pop-culture view of science for the real thing, which would be analogous to mistaking the Introducing Philosopher X books for the philosophy itself? That is, I wonder whether there’s a tendency to mistake a simplified, intuitively — representationally — grounded presentation of an extremely complex conceptual argument for the argument itself. That would be a category mistake.
Now, if i take some of the thinkers you mentioned, like Spinoza Leibni, and Zizek, they all have a pronounced didactic — and popularizing — goals (I don’t know Simondon, but I’ve heard his prose is incredibly convoluted, and Merleau-Ponty’s later work, which it must be said has several mitigating factors, is anything but clear).
Finally, just to be a little more contrarian, Adorno did actually write a first draft, and then ‘complexify’ it in subsequent reworkings (this certainly holds true of the Kierkegaard book, and Negative Dialectics). Here, though, the thrust was for synthetic articulations, ‘pregnant thinking’ as Husserl would say, not obscuratism.
All this said, though, I agree with you on ‘unnecessary stylistics.’ but that applies to ‘ian/ist’ thinkers, who get stuck in the rut of imitating a ‘master’ rather than developing something out of it (and one can, of course end up imitating oneself; Derrida’s Economimesis essay seems to be one such example).
So, maybe we could reframe the debate this way: the problem isn’t so much obscurantism vs. clarity, nor is it the scientific ideal of presentation vs. a the philosophical one; but rather the willingness to popularize and make use of intuitive metaphorical/analogical structures to represent complex ideas, which leave some of the details behind. The problem, then, at least as i see it, is that philosophy is always in the details. And philosophy is extraordinarily suspicious of both metaphors and representations…..
larvalsubjects Says: April 25, 2008 at 1:31 pm
The issue isn’t one of rejecting these figures because of their style as Nussbaum did in the case of Butler, nor is it one of rejecting these thinkers at all, but rather of identifying a different sort of power at work in these texts that often is quite at odds with the explicit aims of the texts. This point seems to be getting lost in a number of the responses, no doubt because us continentalists– especially if we’re from the United States –are especially sensitive to this issue because we’ve suffered so many difficulties professionally in relation to Anglo-American philosophy having to defend the value of these thinkers. We know (or many of us think), for example, that there is something of tremendous value in Lacan’s work, yet the very first thing we encounter again and again in discussions with others about someone like Lacan, is kurt dismissals of that work based on style alone. We thus find ourselves in the position of having to do all sorts of defensive legwork defending the purpose and importance of both the text and its stylistic decisions before we can even begin to discuss the conceptual issues.
What I’m proposing is that these stylistic practices have their own dynamic of power that is often at odds with the express aim of these practices. In A Thousand Plateaus, for example, Deleuze and Guattari contrast root-books and rhizome-books in the introduction to the work. Root-books are centralized, “paranoid” (in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the word), and presided over by an author-function that works much like a sovereign. Rhizome-books, by contrast, lack any centralizations, can be read in a variety of different ways, and connected to anything we might like. The root/rhizome opposition then also functions as a contrast between texts that on the one hand subordinate their readers (the author speaks on high and the reader receives) versus another sort of book that is supposed to be freeing or liberating. Yet what is it that happens with the rhizome book in actual practice? The rhizome-book begins to function in much the same way that an icon functions in religion (under Jean-Luc Marion’s description anyway) where there’s a sense in which the reader becomes trapped in the text, seeking to find its key, or sense, thereby never getting out of the text. In other words, a new sort of subordination to centralized authority emerges that while different from the root model, is no less pervasive in its effects. In the States, at least, we see the effects of this at continentalist conferences, where all the papers are about figures. That is, the figures dictate and the continentalists set about the work of translation.
Alexei, I think there’s a distinction I’m groping for that I can’t quite articulate. I am not confusing pop-science with science. Rather, it seems to me that there are two sorts of difficulties that are being contrasted. Kant is difficult but would still fall within the model of clarity that I have in mind. Badiou is difficult, but still falls under the model of clarity I have in mind. Marx is difficult, but still falls within the model of clarity I have in mind. Goedel is difficult, but still… In other words, clarity does not mean easiness, and I would agree that the Hegelian argument about the relationship between expression and content holds. However, what is the difference between the difficulty of Marx’s Capital or Badiou’s Being and Event, and the difficulty of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition or Lacan’s 20th seminar? Is there a difference at all?
Anthony Paul Smith Says: April 25, 2008 at 1:49 pm
‘The rhizome-book begins to function in much the same way that an icon functions in religion (under Jean-Luc Marion’s description anyway) where there’s a sense in which the reader becomes trapped in the text, seeking to find its key, or sense, thereby never getting out of the text.’
Surely you mean idols (under Marion’s description anyway).
larvalsubjects Says: April 25, 2008 at 2:03 pm
No, I mean icons. The way Marion describes the icon in ways that are similar to Kant’s sublime, as a something like a saturated phenomenon that exceeds all our intentionality and keeps us locked within its regard is close to what I’m getting at. That is, I see an ideological function at work in what Marion is describing or a fetish.
Adam Says: April 25, 2008 at 2:21 pm
I suppose you could argue that that is what Marion is effectively saying, but his intention is clearly the opposite. In short, icons are good and idols are bad, much as one would expect from a Christian.
Anthony Paul Smith Says: April 25, 2008 at 2:29 pm
Well your point is fine, but that is not at all how I remember Marion describing the icon. The idol captures the gaze and holds it, whereas the icon alludes the gaze, pushing the one who views it past it. Both are saturated phenomenon.
This is a strange post. Difficult books are difficult books! I didn’t find the prose all that different from Being and Event to Difference and Repetition, other than the normal differences you’d expect from a magnum opus written late in life and a doctoral dissertation. I wonder if science and clarity don’t operate as a fetish here.
Floyd Says: April 25, 2008 at 2:42 pm
I figured I was missing something (the invocation of surprise was not rhetorical), but I’m not sure I’m satisfied with your elaboration. I take this to be the crux of your point about “another form of power and identification”:
“The rhizome-book begins to function in much the same way that an icon functions in religion (under Jean-Luc Marion’s description anyway) where there’s a sense in which the reader becomes trapped in the text, seeking to find its key, or sense, thereby never getting out of the text. In other words, a new sort of subordination to centralized authority emerges that while different from the root model, is no less pervasive in its effects. ”
I doubt D&G would necessarily reject your complication to that point, lacking a clear description of these effect. The language of entrapment, seeking escape you use here implies what I would take to be a misinterpretation of Heidegger’s classic formulation of the hermeneutic circle. As soon as you’re trying to get out, you’ve missed the point, which is to get into it the right way. Are you rejecting this concept of hermeneutics in its broad sense? As I suggested in my final paragraph, I also agree with Alexei’s objection in the sphere of math/physics (Alexei, if you could remember the title of that book, I’d greatly appreciate it. I’d like to spend some free time this summer refining this point.)
I’m sorry if I am appear obstinate, here, I have read this blog long enough to know that you are well aware of all these basic points. But for whatever reason I can’t get a sense for the force of your object, weak or strong, so I’m trying to draw out new formulations.
larvalsubjects Says: April 25, 2008 at 2:58 pm
Sure, I agree that for Marion idols are hypnotic and icons are something more, I just happen to think everything I read in Marion’s description of icons fits phenomena such as our fascination with a very power and charismatic leader. In other words, I think that Marion fails in his intention.
larvalsubjects Says: April 25, 2008 at 3:19 pm
Floyd, I have no particular commitment or attachment to Heidegger, so I don’t really see how he can function as a normative authority in this case. I really don’t have anything to say one way or another about the hermeneutic circle or whether one should try to escape it or embrace it. My post wasn’t about hermeneutics. I value the products of hermeneutically oriented thinkers, though I do think they’ve taken on a somewhat detrimental hegemonic role in continentally oriented American philosophy departments.
It seems to me that you and Alexei made very different points about science. Alexei rightly pointed out that science itself is often very difficult. We find conceptual creations and acrobatics that rival, in imaginativeness and stunning novelty anything we find in the arts or philosophy. I am not sure why we should pitch this discussion as somehow being one of science versus the humanities. Your view struck me as rather different. You made claims about not seeing science as attached to “lived experience”, echoing, I presume, Heidegger’s unfortunate assertions that science and mathematics do not think and his account of technology. Again, I’m not sure why lived experience should be the final authority where philosophy is concerned, which isn’t to reject lived experience.
I’ll try to make the point I was making yet again via Lacan. The rationale behind Lacan’s style is two-fold: On the one hand, Lacan enacts the unconscious as a pedagogical device to expose his audience to the sorts of formations that appear in the clinic. His style changes markedly in the mid-60s because he opened his seminar up to the public (rather than restricting it to analysts). As a result, he found that it was necessary to somehow render the clinic present to an audience that has never practiced as analysts or been in analysis. On the other hand, there is another pedagogical philosophy Lacan develops over the course of his entire seminar. Seminar 17 is entitled The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. What is the other side of psychoanalysis? The other side of psychoanalysis is the discourse of the master. That is, psychoanalysis is not a discourse of mastery. Or it does not aim to be, at any rate. In addition to the pedagogical aim of Lacan’s language, this language, with its polysemy, irony, constant deviations and contradictions, is designed to undermine belief in the existence of the Other, a father figure, or a subject that knows. Lacan described himself late in life as an honorary woman and as a psychotic, this is what he was getting at.
My question is Hegelian here: does Lacan’s style accomplish what it aims to accomplish? To answer this question we need only look at Lacanian communities and Lacanian scholars. What we have gotten is something that, far from departing from the authority of a master, instead engages in endless textual hermeneutics like priests pouring over sacred texts, and very authoritarian psychoanalytic organizations organized around the charisma of Lacan. This has occurred because the “mystery” (Lacan’s elliptical style) is every bit as hypnotic as the sort of classical text that Lacan denounces. Mutatis mutandis in the case of many other continental figures.
Mikhail Emelianov Says: April 25, 2008 at 3:28 pm
I wonder if science and clarity don’t operate as a fetish here.
I think it’s a fair question, although not really a new question - the clear and indubitable nature of mathematical demonstrations has always attracted philosophical types - I wonder if we are confusing “clear” and “simple” here? A simple idea that, as Levi points out, could be a result of a long and frustrating reading (thus the resentment), but is not necessarily assumed to have been clear from the very beginning (of reading or writing) - where is this “very beginning” anyway? I think in a way we are simplifying the issue by assuming, for example, that there’s a uniform Deleuzian or Derridian style (just two thinkers I’m more or less familiar with) - I mean there are essays by Derrida that are quite “clear” but not very “simple” in their conceptual implications, and then there are convoluted ramblings about a very “simple” idea. the example of first would be say something like “Differance” essay and of second something like “Force of Law” - “Differance” is a rather “clear” essay style-wise but is trying to deal with a very complex concept, “Force of Law” is a long-winded discussion of a rather “simple” point - there is a “between justice and law”…
I know this discussion is going in a rather different direction, but my original point of reference was not the production of difficult texts but their pedagogical value - what kind of skill, if any, is being developed while one is forced to read a “difficult text”? And just a side note, I’m not sure why Kant is included in some examples of “difficult books” - the man clearly struggled with his style but of all the philosophers he’s the one most concerned with clarity, simplicity and, even if one might say he failed, attempts to present his views to the educated public in the simplest possible way thus excusing himself from any accusations of intentional obscurity…
larvalsubjects Says: April 25, 2008 at 4:02 pm
I’m a bit perplexed as to why the discussion has veered off into a discussion of science versus philosophy as I was not proposing that science serve as a model for philosophy but only made the offhand observation that scientists often seem capable of expressing extremely complex ideas without falling into obscurantism. Of course, there is going to be some relativity here. What counts as obscurantism is also going to be a function of one’s background knowledge. When I pick up a book on category theory in mathematics I’m utterly lost after a few pages as I simply do not have the mathematical background to read the book.
Some of the frustration I’m expressing here is simply about bad writing. Take Difference and Repetition and A Thousand Plateaus. I think there are elements of Deleuze’s writing her that aren’t simply a function of style. References are perpetually made to other figures without clarifying exactly what is being referred to or how it is being referred to. This would be excusable, perhaps, if these were common figures in the history of philosophy, but often they are extremely obscure figures. In other cases, concepts are deployed that play a central role in the discussion, but which are based on obscure figures, yet reference isn’t given to the figure. For example, Simondon, plays a central role in Deleuze’s thought yet there are only about 8 references to him throughout the entire body of writing! Likewise, there’s a tendency to introduce terms without providing a provisional definition, and in many cases there’s no identifiable thesis organizing the claims to be made. I take it that this is simply bad writing. Now anyone who reads Larval Subject knows just how committed I am to figures like Deleuze or Lacan, so this isn’t a question of rejecting their work. But I do think these are extremely unforgiving texts and that the cryptic nature of these works does function to produce a particular form of attachment. They’re like mazes that draw you in and interpellate you in this way. It reminds me of this parable from Lacan’s 11th Seminar:
In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Parrhosios, Zeuxis has the advantage of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not in the fact that the grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrhosios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it. By this he showed that what was at issue was certainly deceiving the eye (tromper l’oeil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye.
These non-authoritarian texts function according to the logic of the veil. They create the sense of hiding someone as an apparatus of capture for the desire of the reader. Power then hasn’t been eradicated, but takes on a different form, not unlike what Oedipa encounters in Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 in her search for the elusive meaning of the bugle.
larvalsubjects Says: April 25, 2008 at 4:59 pm
Maybe Kafka’s Trial and Castle would be better examples of what I’m trying to articulate… Especially the “Before the Law” section of the Trial:
The basic insight of “Before the Law” is that it is our fascination with the law, our belief that it holds some sort of secret, that attaches us to the law and holds us in its grip. We believe that the law has some sort of secret power and it is this very belief that ties us to the law.
This is the basic principle behind transference (and we have been talking about transference to texts, not the merits of style or reading techniques… At least that’s what I’ve been talking about). The analysand goes to the analyst, believing that the analyst has a particular esoteric knowledge of his desire. The patient supposes that the analyst knows. It is this that attaches the analysand to the analyst. Insofar as the patient believes the analyst contains the secret of his desire he tries to figure out what this secret is. Analysis concludes when the analysand discovers that the analyst is a dope like anyone else, and that it was the patient, himself, doing the work all along. At this point the shift is made from the analyst as a supposed receptacle of knowledge, to the unconscious as the only receptacle of knowledge. As a result, there is also a dissolution of the Oedipus or authoritarian power structures in the subjective space of the analysand insofar as the Other is no longer seen as containing objet a. This is one of the reasons that Lacan refers to the analyst’s work in analysis as a sort of controlled suicide… His aim is to undermine his own mastery and position of power.
Now in order to read any text whatsoever– or to learn from any text –it is necessary that there be a transference. That is, phenomenologically we must encounter the text as containing a secret, as hiding something. This sets to work the process of reading. I do think, however, that there are certain types of texts that diminish our potential to work through the transference and find our own autonomy. One type of text along these lines would be the authoritarian text written by the “perverse” master, where every question is given the appearance of being answered. Here any sort of lack has been disavowed in the text, so the reader is left no place to discover her own desire because nothing is lacking in the Other. All this is left is complete alienation in the text and total subjective identification. This effect can be discerned, perhaps, among the cult like followers of Ayn Rand.
Another type of transference would be metonymical transference. This sort of text is full of desire– it is elliptical, enigmatic, full of gaps, suggestive, cryptic. Transference here functions in a different way, but no less powerfully. Where there’s a complete fading of the subject in the first text (coupled by strong aggressiveness to others as a sort of symptomatic trace of subjective erasure), the transference at work in the metonymical text functions by suggesting, hinting, promising, that objet a is always just around the corner. Along these lines, one of the things I find fascinating when reading original manuscripts of Lacan’s seminars is their sentence structure and qualifications. Lacan’s setences are extremely complex, sometimes running on for a couple of pages. He perpetually qualifies them with statements like “what I am trying to show you” “what I am trying to get you to see” “the topology that I am trying to handle”, etc. A lot of this gets loss in Miller’s authorized editions. The sense you get is that of a sort of antipatory breathlessness, where Lacan is just about to reveal the truth, to manifest it at long last. This, of course, is the logic of objet a. If Lacan was fascinated with irrational numbers and things like Fibonacci sequences, it was because of how they perpetually repeat while always leaving a remainder. The problem is that the moment of separation called for by analysis, coupled with the traversal of the fantasy, is never accomplished by this sort of style. The listener becomes trapped in Lacan’s speech and ends up thoroughly alienating themselves in his signifiers. The healthy Lacanians, the most authentic Lacanians, are, I think, figures like Iragary, Guattari, Laplanche, Cicioux, and Leclaire… Not because they follow the letter of the Lacanian text, but precisely because they departed from Lacan, indicating that they had undergone separation and traversed the fantasy, finding their own space of desire.
Anthony Paul Smith Says: April 25, 2008 at 6:49 pm
Alright, I understand what you mean. I don’t have any stake in defending Marion’s conception of the idol and the icon.
I do think there is a difference between good writing of the sort you’re talking about (i.e. clear, straight-forward, scholarly writing) and the sort that is sort of attractive about Deleuze and Derrida (I don’t know about Lacan). I personally find both Deleuze and Derrida to be very enjoyable reads. I understand what Mikhail is saying about “Force of Law” and he’s largely correct by the standards of the first kind of good writing. But how many novels are basically a simple idea that is then surrounded by rambling. Of course there are good novels and bad novels and those of us who like reading good novels can’t necessarily write them (for instance, I know that my writing reaches its limits very quickly). Now, I know they aren’t writing novels and certainly the analogy isn’t satisfying in a lot of ways. Still, it just seems that there is something that would be lost if Deleuze wrote in the way you wish he had.
Anyway, much of what I just said covers over lots of good things Mikhail and Levi have said. The difference between simple and clear, the fact that Levi isn’t saying this is grounds for rejecting the text, the desire for more accessible philosophy in general, and so on.
Carl Says: April 25, 2008 at 7:33 pm
Trying to respond specifically to your point about Lacan’s intent to demasterfy the text and the actual outcome in authoritarian sacralization.
According to Weber, this would be a completely ordinary ‘routinization of charisma’. All of the figures you mentioned as examples of clarity have their own priesthoods too. This possibility is there with any text. But it’s a certain ‘kind’ of reader who gets caught in a text this way, isn’t it? Maybe your focus is misplaced?
I don’t think of texts as having power over me (they’re tools for me), but some people do. Why?
parodycenter Says: April 25, 2008 at 9:06 pm
Mikhail, here you can see the perversity at work IN VIVO. Angelina Paulina comes in with some barely disguised complaint (is it icon or is it idol) designed to provoke dr. Sinthome into spanking her, and dr. Sinthome of course can’t resist the temptation. Then Angelina offers an apology which clearly isn’t honest, hoping to tempt the narcissistic cat into spanking her some more. In between Adamina makes a patronizing appearance just to make sure who’s the real boss at the Eternal Theology Students blogs. In this way Angelina’s masochistic jouissance is doubled.
traxus4420 Says: April 25, 2008 at 9:34 pm
i don’t have a lot to add, but thought someone should at least sort of agree with larvalsubjects.
my appreciation of the style of deleuze and derrida is, for lack of a better term, aesthetic, and undoubtedly has something to do with this power relationship LS is talking about. their ideas can and have been made clearer by interlocutors, and i think only the aesthetic element is lost. that’s quite a lot if you’re a fan, like i am — if they’ve been responsible for shaping you intellectually — but for those who don’t have a taste for it it’s not that much.
i’m not sure how marx fits into this — his prose is just as horrendously and unnecessarily difficult as the writers on your ‘obscurantist’ list, though his subject is (arguably i suppose) of more immediate importance.
it’s interesting that i agree with your assessment of kant, spinoza, leibniz, etc. but for the most part i find their writing a chore, and i think they take me just as long to sort through as the ‘obscurantists.’ that is, i agree that their concepts are clearer (despite their difficulty), but here too i think they can be broken down in such a way that the only loss is to those who have developed a relationship with them, by laborious working through the texts. one learns a skill, perhaps, in doing this, but i don’t know that it’s qualitatively different from the ’skill’ one learns from reading derrida, deleuze, etc. and the end result is still often a kind of tutelage to an invisible master.
this actually does seem to be a philosophy vs. science question. i think what’s at stake is something like content. 6:36 PM

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